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New religion guidelines issued by the U.S. Air Force warn commanders against promoting any particular religious faith in official capacity, at events, proceedings or sports events.
According to The New York Times, the new rules serve as a cautionary reminder to commanders to abstain even from discussing or promoting “the idea of religion over nonreligion” and even discourage the recitation of prayers at any Air Force-related events, other than worship services.
Saying the issue is thought to be a highly contentious one for many commanders, the paper quoted portions of the new guidelines, which include approval for the recitation of “a brief nonsectarian prayer” during special ceremonies like promotions, or in “extraordinary circumstances” such as “mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters.”
The nation’s military air branch developed the new guidelines following a controversy at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in which some non-Christian students complained they were being “coerced” into faith by Christian cadets.
Lt. Gen. John Rosa, academy superintendent, commissioned a survey that found some pressure was being exerted on cadets according to their religious beliefs, and that half of the survey’s respondents said they had heard religious slurs, comments or jokes while at the academy.
“Some students had a feeling that ‘If I’m not a Christian, I feel like I’m having Christianity crammed down my throat,'” Rosa said.
The new guidelines, however, apply service-wide, throughout the Air Force, and not just at the service’s military academy. The Times reports the new guidelines will be completed later this year when a group of Air Force generals will meet to hear recommendations from commanders and finalize the rules.
“We support free exercise of religion, but we do not push religion,” Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a Navy veteran, told the paper. He said he was hired earlier this year to assist the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force with writing the guidelines.
The new rules come on the heels of criticism of the academy by a pair of congressional Democrats, Reps. Steve Israel of New York and Lois Capps of California. The Times said both were taking a cautious approach to the new guidelines.
“It’s actually a refreshing acknowledgment by the Air Force that it had real problems that needed to be corrected. It’s a good step forward,” Israel – a member of the House Armed Services Committee – told the paper. According to Congress.org, a legislative site, Israel’s profile says he’s Jewish and does not list any previous military experience.
The guidelines appear to draw a balance between the Constitution’s First Amendment protection of freedom of worship with its limits on government sponsorship of a particular religion.
“Supervisors, commanders and leaders at every level bear a special responsibility to ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed as either official endorsement or disapproval of the decisions of individuals to hold particular religious beliefs or to hold no religious beliefs,” say the guidelines.
They also remind commanders to allow cadets the freedom to worship as they please, in terms of religious services, dress, food choices and the observance of holy days.
Resnicoff offered that some commanders may have mistaken the service’s encouragement of “spiritual strength as a pillar of leadership” as a license to push their own belief in Christianity with impunity.
In Rosa’s survey, one-third of non-Christian respondents said they believed Christian cadets receive preferential treatment – a perception shared by only 10 percent of Christian respondents. But more than half of the non-Christian participants indicated they had “not felt pressure to be involved in religion.”
Following the August 2004 survey, the academy instituted a new training program, “Respecting the Spiritual Values of People,” to teach the cadets, 90 percent of whom are from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, tolerance toward non-Christians.